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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Student Activism Reaches Epic Heights at City College

    What began as a controversial letter from a City College of New York (CCNY) student in early December, has now culminated into a rally and a lawsuit against the school’s administration. CCNY faces the possibility of incurring a temporary injunction order for forcibly taking down a sign honoring controversial activists. Reminiscent of the 1989 student activism at CCNY, the issue has grown into epic proportions to include academic rights and freedoms.

    CCNY student, Sergey Kadinsky, who was unavailable to comment on the issue, wrote a letter to the conservative newspaper, The Campus, on Dec. 11. The letter, which questioned the name of the community student center, was published by the Daily News. The Center is named after the Puerto Rican freedom fighter, Guillermo Morales, claimed to be a ‘cop killer’ and former Black Panther, Assata Shakur, who has been has been called a ‘domestic terrorist.’ The Daily News investigated the story and published the letter along with a ‘special report.’

    Charlene Obernauer, an organizer of the Social Justice Alliance (SJA) group at Stony Brook University (SBU), said that ‘as an individual who organizes with radical activist organizations and as a core organizer for SJA, I can say that both Shakur and Morales must unquestionably be honored as the true freedom fighters that they were … Shakur was accused of murdering a police officer, when in actuality, she was unarmed, pulled over due to racist profiling, and was shot and wounded. Sean Bell was killed just a few months ago, also unarmed, and also Black. Are the two cases unrelated, or are they both results of racism against Black individuals in the United States?’

    The article quoted New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President, Patrick Lynch, on how ‘disgusting it was to honor a person whose life’s goal was to kill people.’ Shakur, who is currently in Cuba in political exile, escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1979 after being found guilty of murdering a NJ state trooper in 1973. Morales, who has also been granted political exile in Cuba, was a member of the Armed Forces for the Liberation of Puerto Rico (FALN).

    On the other hand, Ydanis Rodriguez, who played a significant role in the 1989 student strike was quoted by Fightbacknews: ‘The center has been doing a tremendous job in the last 17 years, organizing the students against tuition increases and budget cuts, organizing different forums against police brutality, against gentrification in Harlem and Washington Heights, and also the center is a space not only for students but also community organizations to have meetings.’

    Some feel that the Shakur/Morales issue has come into limelight after the unwarranted murder of Bell.

    ‘I believe that the only reason why the Shakur/Morales Center has become an issue is become the NY Police Force is making a drastic and ineffective attempt to regain some merit after the ‘mistaken’ murder of Sean Bell. Actions have been held around the country in solidarity with Sean Bell, and actions have also been held in support of maintaining the Shakur/Morales Center,’ said Obernauer.

    The Daily News’ doctored photograph of Shakur, which said ‘Disgrace!’ led to the issue being consequentially flagged by several media outlets.

    ‘The media has masters, owners, that need to be satisfied. Most are very unfair or propagate semi-racist, or very racist, agendas. For the most part, there is nothing covered on what the FBI did to the Black Panthers or the CIA to Puerto Rico. There are some good reporting on independent [sources] but not often. The media is very sensational and nothing on our center’s work has been highlighted such as providing service in book exchanges or … history of CCNY and the struggles we faced since the 1960s,’ said Center Director, Rodolfo Leyton in response to the negative media attention.

    Amidst the controversy, the 17-year-old sign honoring Morales and Shakur with their photographs was taken down despite its original approval by a former City College President.

    For some students the issue is not simply contained in the City.

    ‘[The Center Controversy] also seems to be following the crack-down that the Bush Administration has implemented regarding political prisoners seeking asylum in Cuba. If the U.S. can grant asylum to political prisoners escaping Cuba, why can’t Cuba grant asylum to political prisoners escaping the U.S.?’ said Obernauer.

    ‘[The Center] received this space after we protested against the tuition hikes … [the administrators] didn’t mind the name before.’ The name, Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Student and Community Center, was picked after the 1989 sit-ins over tuition increases,’ said Leyton.

    Following the Daily News’ negative portrayal of Shakur, the Student Liberation Action Movement’s (SLAM!) President, Igwe Williams, and Students for Educational Rights (SER) President Leyton issued a press release. Their statement claimed Shakur’s innocence, calling her a ‘hero.’ It also asserted the students’ cry for academic freedom and their right to organize on campus.

    Center members then met on Dec. 15 for a scheduled community meeting. The meeting was attended by SLAM! President Williams and Leyton, as well as, Attorney Ronald B. McGuire and Acting Vice President of Student Affairs, Dr. Ramona Brown. However, the meeting did not actually take place because the CCNY Administration had objections to the presence of a lawyer and tape recording of the meeting.

    The same members were unable to speak to CCNY President Gregory H. Williams, who was said to be out of office by his Deputy and Chief of Staff, Michael Rogovin. Members left their contact information. On Dec. 14, the sign was reported stolen, purportedly by Physical Plant Services. Brown sent a memo threatening suspension and expulsion to students who attempted to replace the sign. A stolen sign report was then filed with the Office of Public Safety, which found the sign the same day but only released it to Leyton. Upon retrieval, the sign was missing Shakur and Morales’ photographs. A report was then filed with the Office for vandalism.

    Until recently, the name or the sign did not face any objections. It was taken down when City University of New York (CUNY) Chancellor, Matthew Goldstein wrote to CCNY President Williams, to remove the ‘unauthorized and inappropriate’ sign. According to Goldstein, however, only CUNY’s trustees have the authority to name college facilities.

    Speaking to an unnamed media source, the Center’s attorney, Ronald B. McGuire said, ‘You can’t allow students to hang signs at colleges all over this university saying ‘Newman Center’ (after Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman) or ‘Hillel Foundation’ (after Rabbi Hillel) and then ban a sign saying ‘Morales/Shakur Community Center … CUNY can’t … prohibit other students from giving the same recognition to Black Panthers or Puerto Rican freedom fighters.’

    Even after the sign removal, the President failed to meet the students who found his office was locked and empty. At 1:00 PM on Dec. 15, City Council Representative Charles Barron held a press conference at City Hall. Because the sign was not allowed through City Hall security, the conference was moved outside of City Hall. At the same time, Brown sent another memo barring a rally in the space owned by City College.

    In response to the lock down against students, Obernauer said, ‘City College was responding to pressure placed on them by a conservative media. Instead of listening to the students, the ones who should be defining their own educational experience, City College conformed to outside pressure.’

    On Dec. 15, the rally finally took place on Amsterdam Ave. and 137th St.

    ‘We crossed Amsterdam Avenue onto a campus that seemed not to show any signs of an event. Blue police uniforms were scurrying about and the police carts seemed strategically placed in front of a building. A lone student stood in the dark as we neared the NAC building. There were no visible signs for direct
    ions, only a student wearing a SLAM button. Very quietly, the student told us the community and students were locked out of the room and they had to resort to Underground Railroad techniques to get the community to the meeting. Many community people were actually turned away by the police,’ wrote Agnes Johnson, International Action Center volunteer, to the Workers World Organization.

    A community meeting was scheduled for 7:30 PM at the North Academic Center (NAC) of City College the same day. Instead, the meeting took place in a classroom offered by CCNY professor, Dr. Leonard Jefferies. At the meeting, Barron’s spokesperson, Joy Simmons pledged his support to put the sign back. The meeting ended with an echoing chant of ‘Hands off Assata and Morales!’ Five days later, on Dec. 20, a gathering took place at the NAC Plaza, directly across the Administration Building. A march was scheduled to deliver a demand statement to CCNY President Williams.

    When asked about where all this has left students from the Center, Leyton said, ‘We are an autonomous space (student government permanently run), we function as watchdog and whistle blowers. Right now we are investigating the electrical transforming in library-city college has done horrendous things without public oversite. We have no help/no funding.’

    Currently, a lawsuit has been filed against CCNY in the U.S. District Court in NY, claiming that Shakur and Morales’ photographs were confiscated by the school, and that students were threatened with disciplinary action. In response to the disciplinary action, Obernauer said that CCNY was not fair in threatening expulsion or suspension. ‘Students would be doing the only thing that they could do: rebel against an action that they found unjust,’ she added.

    It also states that the school has tried to evict groups at the Center and deliberately disrupted activities by imposing a 20-person limit. Another complaint is that the Center is open only to those who possess a CCNY identification card. The lawsuit seeks a temporary injunction prohibiting the school from taking action against anyone who replaces the sign, or from evicting the groups that use the Community Center.

    ‘We’re defending our freedom of speech which has been violated. Part of that is security has done unprecedented things that are very repressive. We documented these … [school administration] told visitors that the college is closed when we kept it open late to keep people from coming. Also, we did an investigation about fired codes. They also had a installed a hidden camera on us ‘hellip; they were aware of us since the beginning,’ Leyton said in relation to the legal actions being taken. Attorneys McGuire and Kamau Franklin will be representing legal counsel.

    In response to the success of activist groups, such as those at SBU and CCNY, Obernauer said, ‘Activist groups on campus have definitely been the result of many concrete changes. Look at NYPIRGs work with tuition hikes, USAS and the removal of Coca-Cola products from over thirty campuses nationwide and universities withdrawing from contracts with sweatshops, OXFAM and fair trade products being introduced to universities, the CIW/SFA and the ‘Boot the Bell Campaign’ to remove Taco Bell from college campuses. And of course, movements working with university workers for a living wage, the GSEU on campus.’

    SJA, which according to Obernauer ‘used to be called the ‘Berkely of the East’ has been gaining that reputation back since 2001,’ is one such group. Its importance, like its counterparts, was probably best said by Obernauer: ‘Activist groups are essential to put the power back where it belongs, with the students, and out of the hands of the administrators.’

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